Vaccine Passports: A New Era in Travelling?

Michael Schwartz
Published: June 5, 2021

The ramping up of vaccination around the world makes it possible to envision a world in which the average person again has the possibility to travel again, whether within their own district, country, or beyond. Given the trauma of COVID-19, however, there is still considerable apprehension among many individuals — and the governments who lead them — about the best way to go about a gradual reopening of previously closed institutions and borders. How does a society balance openness with the need for information, or the interests of the individual versus those of the collective?

Canada is not immune to the controversy. One idea that is generating considerable discussion here is the notion of vaccine passports, also sometimes known as immunity passports. These terms refer to paper or electronic documents that show that someone has received a vaccination against COVID-19.

A recent study by Leger360 indicates a substantial majority of Canadians (61%) would support their government establishing proof of vaccination as a means of participating in public gatherings. A slightly stronger majority, 64% would support requiring a vaccine passport to attend a gathering. Meanwhile, 79% of respondents would support requiring vaccine passports for Canadians travelling between provinces or to or from foreign countries, and 82% favour requiring non-Canadians entering Canada to furnish some proof.

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And non-Canadians want to come to Canada. The Americans are eager to open the USA-Canada border. This change, of course, requires the agreement of both countries. But Americans, according to the same poll, are much less supportive of the idea of vaccine passports. Indeed, several American states have banned their usage.

The vaccines thus far appear to be very effective, and it seems that in most countries, the question is not if anyone who wants a vaccine will get one, but rather a question of when they will receive it. The closure of borders, be they internal or international, has been catastrophic to so many people in so many different ways. Proving something one already did seems like a small price to pay for the ability to visit other countries or welcome foreigners to one’s own. Vaccine passports might encourage people who would otherwise not get vaccinated to do so. And there are precedents. There are countries to this day that require proof of immunization against certain diseases, such as malaria or yellow fever.

But there are downsides.

There are legitimate privacy considerations. A vaccine passport discloses intimate, personal information — and may engage matters beyond one’s vaccination per se.

People attempt to forge passports, and sometimes they succeed. If they can do so with a technology controlled by a central government and which has been perfected over years — how much more likely would this be with a new recording system that is still in its infancy and lacks standardization?

It is clear that wealthier countries generally have a faster and better vaccine production or procurement rate than poorer ones. Would requiring vaccine passports then punish and exclude people who are already downtrodden? And, what about people who can receive the vaccine, but for reasons of conviction or otherwise, refuse to get one?

The issue is very much a live and undecided one. It will be fascinating to see how different governments, including that of Canada and her constituent provinces and territories, grapple with and decide the issue.

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